Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does geopolitics. So it was predictable that, following the snap decision by President Donald Trump to pull US forces out of Syria, the void in the north of the country was immediately filled by Russian troops supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The humanitarian costs of the Turkish invasion are rising rapidly, with hundreds of Kurds dead and nearly 300,000 civilians - including 70,000 children - on the move. The chaos is allowing ISIS militants to escape jail, joining the thousands in hiding around the Syria-Iran border and looking for an opportunity to regroup. America’s former Kurdish allies have been forced to turn to the hated Assad regime for their very survival.
The 120-hour ceasefire negotiated by Vice President Mike Pence with the Turks on Thursday gives at least a chance that violence may be reduced for a period of time. (Although the Kurds are already accusing Turkey of violating it.) But the enduring challenges will remain.
By essentially abandoning the fighters who did the most to defeat ISIS, the Trump administration has deeply damaged the global prestige and trust of the US as an ally. Congress has done better, with the House voting overwhelmingly to condemn the administration’s decision, but a token resolution is of little help to the millions of displaced in Syria as winter sets in.
Turkey, a NATO ally, is on the receiving end of escalating political ire and economic punishment. The only “winners” appear to be the Syrian regime, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, ISIS, and Iran and its proxies – in other words, all of America’s adversaries in the region.
What can be done to turn the situation around? How can the US recover its influence in the region and, above all, its leadership role?
A good start would be recognizing that it is not a significant expenditure of resources to remain engaged in Syria. At peak, the US had around 2,000 service members there. As a point of comparison, when I commanded the NATO mission in Afghanistan, more than 150,000 American troops were deployed. The Pentagon is strongly supportive of the Syria mission, mostly executed by Special Forces on the ground with air support based elsewhere in theater. The departure of all US forces from Syria, while small in numbers, has had a significant impact on the ground, and reflects Trump’s antipathy to what he calls the “endless wars” of the Middle East.
But there is an alternative: A coalition structure centered on NATO. The alliance leaders know the region well, having had a mission in Iraq as well as the Afghan campaign. When I was supreme allied commander some years ago, events were already heated on that long Turkish-Syrian border. A Turkish jet was shot down by a Syrian air-defense system in 2012, the Syrian civil war was in its early stages but worsening, and the dangers to the alliance were obvious. Turkey repeatedly called for NATO support, so we sent air defense systems to its southern flank, increased NATO intelligence-gathering flights with our high performance Airborne Warning and Control aircraft, stepped up drone surveillance, and placed NATO military forces (including land-combat units) on higher levels of alert. There are lessons to be learned in how NATO can help defuse this crisis and avoid further damage to the relationship between Turkey and its alliance partners.
First, we need to listen carefully to the Turks’ concerns about Kurdish terrorists operating on their southern border. The US has worked with Turkey in the past to help blunt the efforts of organizations such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. But the vast majority of the Kurds with whom American forces worked in Syria - the People’s Protection Units, or YPG - have a different set of objectives. Their work is focused in Syria and Iraq, not against Turkey. With a combination of US and NATO intelligence, it should be possible to convince Turkey of the difference.
Second, Western leaders should acknowledge that the Turks’ desire for a “buffer zone” along the border might make sense, especially if limited to five miles deep instead of the 20 miles currently envisioned by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We should continue the negotiations between Turkey’s highly regarded defense minister, Hulusi Aka, and US Defense Secretary Mike Esper that were underway before the infamous Oct. 6 phone call in which Trump gave Erdogan the “green light” for the invasion.
But instead of the joint US-Turkish patrol being considered, how about one conducted by NATO forces? That would spread the cost and risk among all 29 of the members of the alliance, while also broadening the dialogue beyond just the US and Turkey.
Finally, at next week’s meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, all of the nations should collectively encourage Turkey to halt its offensive operations immediately and work together to counter Assad’s Syrian regime and Russia. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, has already urged Turkey to act with restraint. The alliance members need to recognize that if Syrian/Russian forces end up in combat with Turkish troops, we will have a NATO ally in combat with Moscow – the exact thing the alliance has been trying to avoid since its founding in 70 years ago. Admittedly that is the dark end of the spectrum, but far from impossible in the confused battle space.
At the end of the day, Turkey is still a NATO ally – and one that reportedly holds American nuclear weapons at its Incirlik air base. Working collectively to seal that southern border - a NATO border – could not only help defuse this crisis, but steal a victory from Putin and his Iranian partners.
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